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On 2 December 1943, 105 German bombers made a surprise air raid on Bari in southern Italy, where they sank 27 Allied cargo and transport ships. One that blew up was an American “liberty ship”, the SS John Harvey, carrying a secret cargo of 2,000 mustard gas bombs intended for retaliation against German forces in the event of them using poison gas against the Allies.

After the destruction of the John Harvey, liquid mustard gas spilled out of the bombs, mixed with the sea water and floating patches of oil in the harbour, and inflicted terrible burns on surviving sailors in the water. Many of those rescued were wrapped in blankets that became impregnated with the liquified mustard that made their injuries worse.

The gas vaporised and mixed with clouds of smoke that drifted over Bari, poisoning soldiers and civilians alike. The presence of chemical weapons on the allied side was a closely held secret, so doctors did not understand what was killing their patients. The American and British political and military leadership at first tried to keep the disaster a secret, with British soldiers killed by the mustard gas being officially described as having died as a result of “burns due to enemy action”.

Pundits assert that Putin is bluffing

The cover-up continued long after the raid, though an excellent book entitled Disaster at Bari by Glenn B Infield was published in 1967. I became interested in the event because an uncle of mine, Major Richard Myles “Teeny” Arbuthnot, who was with the 8th Army, died in Bari at about this time and was buried there in late 1943. I wondered if he might have been an undisclosed victim of mustard gas, but he turned out to have died – reportedly from malarial meningitis – a couple of months before the German raid.

The Bari disaster has modern relevance because it provides pointers about the potential use of weapons of mass destruction in the Ukraine war. A widespread assumption, false to my mind, is that they would be used only as the result of a decision by President Vladimir Putin, making good on his vague threat to use them.

Pundits confidently assert that he is bluffing, since to escalate the conflict to a nuclear level would be against Russian interests and military traditions. It is therefore safe “to call his bluff” on the general schoolyard principle that a bully is always a coward.

As an argument, this goes against Putin’s track record in wartime, which is one of a gambler but not a bluffer, as when he launched his doomed invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. His decision-making is all too demonstrably dangerously ill-judged, but I want to make another point, which is illustrated by what happened at Bari.

Ingredients for a calamity

Real calamities – in war as in peace – occur for multiple causes, some culpable and avoidable and some accidental and unforeseeable. Accidents happen all the time, but particularly in wartime. At Bari, almost nobody knew about the lethal cargo in the harbour on board the John Harvey. Combine this with an inability to unload the ship in the congested harbour and a gross underestimate of German air power and one has the ingredients for a calamity.

On the day that the raid took place, hubris was riding particularly high, with the Allied air commander, Sir Arthur Coningham, telling a press conference that the Germans were defeated in the air and he would “consider it a personal insult if the enemy should send so much as a single plane over the city [Bari]”.

Mocking this overconfidence is easy enough, but over the past half-century few military conflicts have gone as was confidently expected by the protagonists. The few successes were usually small in scale and in confined geographical areas, such as the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the Falklands War in 1982 and the Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1999.

Spectacular failures

Most invasions that I have reported on have been spectacular failures from the point of view of the invader, from the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Foreign interventions using air power and local proxy forces, as in Afghanistan in 2001 and Libya in 2011, produced ruin for the Afghans and Libyans and frustration for the intervening powers.

It is conventional wisdom to say that dictators like Putin and Saddam Hussein are particularly prone to an exaggerated idea of their own strength and of the weakness of their enemies. This is true enough of Putin in Ukraine, as it was for Saddam Hussein’s invasions of Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. But George W Bush and Tony Blair were equally hubristic in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003.

Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister during the First World War, famously said that “war is too important to be left to the generals”, but politicians tend to be just as bad.

Belittling the enemy

The politics of war are very different from the politics of peace: politicians deal in words which unravel on the battlefield. Most are too prone to believe their own propaganda, lauding their own side while belittling the enemy. Wars have too many moving parts to take on board, so even a leader as intelligent as Blair never seems to have understood much about the multiple conflicts in Iraq. Going by his memoirs, David Cameron never made any effort to learn about Libya.

More from Opinion

The media is equally at fault, liking wars because they provide news and drama, but it is not very good at understanding them because it dilutes complex reality. It divides the protagonists into white hats and black hats, over-praising one and demonising the other.

Systematic bias and wishful thinking cumulatively produce a distorted picture which may wholly differ from reality. In Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, the US and Britain thought that they had won wars which were only just beginning.

Overconfidence and crass error

The same certitude is in full flower in our perceptions of the war in Ukraine. When Ukrainian men of military age are prevented from leaving the country, it is taken as an encouraging sign of military determination. When potential Russian conscripts try to leave the country, it is portrayed as a sure sign of collapsing morale and opposition to an unpopular war. This interpretation may well be correct, but there is no certainty about it.

Wars are usually reported as if those waging them are in control, but more often conflicts develop their own momentum. Putin appears not to have known what to do since the first days of the war, when his expected walkover failed to materialise. Late in the day, he is mobilising and desperately looking for policy options that are by now very limited in number.

One of them is to use weapons of mass destruction, which is certainly sabre-rattling at this stage, but his threat retains credibility only if the sabre is finally produced and looks as if it might be used. As in Bari so many years ago, overconfidence and crass error can easily combine to produce a catastrophe.

Further Thoughts

More bad news for the unionists in Northern Ireland where once Protestants outnumbered Catholics by two thirds to one third. Anti-Catholic discrimination in jobs and housing were common for decades in a bid to prevent Protestant dominance being eroded in what one British newspaper called “John Bull’s political slum”.

The long campaign to maintain a Protestant majority has finally failed, as the latest census shows that, for the first time, there are more Catholics than Protestants in the 1.9 million population of Northern Ireland. The change in the demographic balance is significant, all the more so because it comes on top of other alterations in the balance of power between the Protestant and Catholic communities. The change is incremental, but almost every development – political, social, economic – tips the balance towards the Catholics.

The new census figures published on Thursday show that there are 45.7 per cent of people in Northern Ireland with a Catholic background as opposed to 43.5 per cent who are Protestant or belong to other Christian faiths. In 2011, 48 per cent were Protestant and 45 per cent Catholic, but the majority/minority positions were expected to switch in the 2021 census, as has now occurred.

The figures reveal other developments with important political implications, such as the sharp increase, compared go 10 years ago, of people holding an Irish passport which rose 63.5 per cent to 614,3000 or one third of the population. Moreover, 500,000 of these hold only an Irish passport and not a British one, the steep rise accelerated by Brexit and Britain’s departure from the EU. In Derry City and Strabane District, 48 per cent have Irish passports and 29 per cent British.

On the question of identity, the proportion of people who say that they are British only fell from 40 to 32 per cent, and the number who say they are Irish only rose from 25 to 29 per cent. The number who say Northern Ireland only was steady at 20 per cent.

It is easy to make too much or too little of these figures. They are often reported outside Northern Ireland as an over-simple guide to the likelihood of Northern Ireland joining the Irish Republic and ceasing to be part of Britain. But the consequences of the demographic changes encompass far more than ending the partition of Ireland between north and south.

Catholics and Protestants often refer to themselves as nationalists and unionists but religious identity does not necessarily determine attitudes to the union with Britain. Many Catholics do not want to join the Irish Republic, though Brexit, which was opposed by a majority in Northern Ireland in the 2016 referendum, has swayed many Catholics away from support for the union with Britain because they want to stay inside the EU.

Though the majority community for so long, Protestants were unable to monopolise political power after the start in 1968 of the civil rights agitation by Catholics against discrimination. “The Troubles”, in reality a low-level war, followed and only concluded with the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement in 1998. This abolished what many Catholics saw as “the Orange state”, introduced power sharing at every level, and ended security and trade controls along the 300-mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The agreement ended the violence, but Sinn Féin came to dominate nationalist politics in the north and the Democratic Unionist Party did the same among unionists. Every shift in the balance between the two communities is microscopically examined and is usually contested, and the two communities remain largely self-segregated and the political centre ground is about 20 per cent of voters. Sinn Féin won more seats than the DUP in the Assembly elections last May and Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin deputy leader, is First Minister designate. However, the DUP will not allow the Assembly to meet until their objections to the trade barrier in the Irish sea introduced through the Northern Ireland Protocol have been met.

Other demographic changes in terms of who lives where in Northern Ireland are important, as well the overall figures for religious allegiance or background. Protestants are increasingly concentrated in the northeast of the province according to anecdotal evidence, and are averse to buying houses even in up-market districts where there is a Catholic majority. The census confirms fundamental developments in the political and religious composition of society in Northern Ireland – but the changes are complex and slow.

Irish unity is not coming any time soon but do not underestimate the ability of the DUP to shoot itself in both feet – as it did by supporting Brexit – and bring an end to partition closer.

Beneath the Radar

A theme during the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II was how the memory of her life and achievements would live for ever. This may be true of monarchs, but I have always felt that for the rest of humanity the degree to which they are remembered is a matter of chance – however spectacular the manner of their death.

How many people, for instance, aside from a few in the former mining villages of northeast Wales, know that this Thursday was the anniversary of one Britain’s worst mining disasters on 22 September 1934, when 266 coal miners were killed by explosions, fires and carbon-monoxide gas deep underground at Gresford colliery outside Wrexham. The mine owners were suspected of cutting back on safety measures. Precisely what had caused the disaster was never discovered, partly because the shafts were closed after only 11 bodies were recovered. I only know about this because I am writing a biography of my father, Claud Cockburn, who wrote a report on the Gresford disaster a few days after it happened. Here is a full account of it.

Cockburn’s Picks

I found this lecture by Sir John Curtice on the extent to which Brexit still shapes British political identity very interesting. Because none of the political parties want to talk about it for very different reasons – Tories say Brexit is done, Labour is divided on it – I had not realised that for many people it is still a live issue.

This is Dispatches with Patrick Cockburn, a subscriber-only newsletter from i. If you’d like to get this direct to your inbox, every single week, you can sign up here.

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